How far into 2020 did you finally cave in and download TikTok?
Like most university students I once cringed at the pre-teen dance crazes and looked down on those who participated in the ‘Vine rip-off’ app. However, I was one of many who were intrigued by seeing the relatable videos pop up on Twitter and Instagram, so I downloaded it out of curiosity in March. Of course, I would only stoop to the level of learning the Renegade to be ironic and purely to pass the time during lockdown.
Since launching in September 2016, TikTok has been downloaded over 1.5 billion times, making it the most downloaded app on the Apple App Store and embedding itself into the core of teenage life — thriving under the forced hermit-culture of lockdown. As with any form of mass media it is intensely important to scrutinize this platform, especially with its users being largely young and impressionable. Despite the app’s huge popularity, it has been labelled as extremely toxic and much more dangerous than other social media platforms. From oversharing and online predators to Chinese data mining, the platform is problematic on many levels.
When breaking down the basic app format, the problems begin to emerge. The beating heart of the app is the dreaded but compelling ‘For You Page’. One of the first things you may notice (or ideally not notice) is that this takes up your entire screen. Really? Surely snapchat does this, surely Instagram? Whilst blissfully scrolling through endless 15 second videos you can’t tell the time, see how much battery you have left, or notifications from any other app. Alarm bells ringing? That’s only just the beginning.
The point of the ‘For You Page’ is to expose users to content they would otherwise not come across, perhaps this is positive, perhaps this is extremely concerning. Unlike other platforms where you primarily see the content of who you follow and their activity such as Twitter and Facebook; where content from other users is only ‘recommended’ like on YouTube or Instagram ‘Explore’ page, TikTok operates in the complete opposite way. You can follow creators, but most users frequent the ‘For You Page’ over who they are following. Lack of control over what content you choose to consume opens up users to an array of insecurities and risks, making the ‘For You Page’ addictive and dangerous.
One insecurity that has risen from the growth of TikTok and lack of control over your ‘For You Page’ is body image issues among teens. It could be argued that once upon a time we fled to TikTok to see ‘real’ bodies from ‘real’ people, as anybody could go viral, compared to platforms such as Instagram where we are inundated by ‘models’ with photo shopped waists and boobs. However, the ‘For You Page’ began to serve up adolescent, white, toned bodies thanks to TikTok’s controversial algorithm that delivers what we supposedly want to see. Compared to Instagram, where we can choose not to follow influencers who lower our self-esteem, we have no choice but to compare ourselves to the likes of Addison Rae and Charli D’amelio. With an infinite stream of ‘1000 calorie what I eat in a day’ videos and unobtainable bodies, young girls who make up the majority of the app are being negatively influenced at an impressionable age.
Looking at the lack of control over the ‘For You Page’, another concerning issue at play is child safety and how accessible the app is to child predators. Whilst this is an issue all social media platforms face with many users ignoring the 13+ rule and the struggle of media owners to regulate content — the algorithmic nature of TikTok offers up underage children on a plate. On top of this, videos of creepy old men ‘duetting’ with children has become a trend to be mocked as if it were a meme and not predatory behaviour.
TikTok has faced scrutiny and been fined in the US after being accused of collecting data from children under 13, in this way they are not only targeted by predators but the creators of the app itself from data mining, as are users of all ages. TikTok owner — ‘Bytedance’ has been the target of suspicion by Western Governments. With TikTok being the first Chinese-owned app to go fully global there are fears of data-mining by the Chinese government as well as the censorship of political content with allegations of videos of the Hong Kong riots being removed and/or not appearing on the ‘For You Page’. On reflection are these unfounded Western fears of losing their dominating influence over the media to Eastern powers, or legitimate threats to privacy and security?
With all these red flags, what is the appeal of TikTok to young people? A key aspect of any online platform is the hunger for clout — likes, views, the dream is to go viral. TikTok makes this easy for anyone to achieve. Content can reach anyone as long as you have a public account, and the brief length and never-ending nature of videos means it is common for everyday users’ videos to get hundreds of thousands of views. Compared to other apps such as YouTube where it can take years to amass thousands of views on a video; the right trend with the right ‘sound’ and the right hashtags is a winning combination.
However, this has only fuelled the drive for clout, content has become more provocative and outrageous, young users oversharing personal or sexualised ‘story times’ they would not dream of posting on any other platform. TikTok has led many young people away from reality, creating videos exploiting racist trends, mocking disabled people, objectifying bodies just for views and clout.
It seems that TikTok exists on some alternate planet where moral standards are lowered and people believe what they post will not have real-life repercussions for them or anyone else. Where regulation is selective as videos are pulled down for the caption ‘FML’ but 12 year olds are welcome to twerk for 1 million views. Opinions like these are labelled as having ‘boomer energy’, but this is exactly the issue among the TikTok generation, the lines of humour and sheer criminality are being blurred and genuine concerns are disregarded. Media owners need to take up the responsibility of up-to-standard regulation and review the harmful nature of the format which exploits the passive, vulnerable and impressionable nature of young people today.
By Beth Mendleton
Illustration: by Sohaib Hassan